As per last year, I’ll be sharing projections for every team in the NFL. I use past production in specific roles for each team’s scheme to work out realistic production profiles. You can see how accurate I was in 2017 in my IDP Projection Marking series.
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This should be fun. Very few fanbases are as vociferous as the Cowboys’ in defending perceived slights of their team. And even fewer are as perennially optimistic about the forthcoming season. Every year.
This is not a glowing report I’m afraid but that seems obvious. There are bright spots and reasons for the habitual optimism but there are also significant worries going into 2018.
David Irving has produced exceptional efficiency over the last two seasons. As a result, he’s a player who generates a great number of queries. It seems his owners simply look at the number of sacks he has (11 in two years) and extrapolate that from the number of snaps he’s played (just 823 in two years). This is just not valid. Irving averaged 42 snaps per game in 2017 in the eight games he played in. If we assume that’s a good bench-mark, he’d play just 504 snaps in 2018. Last season, 39 tackles played more than that.
Irving can play in just 12 games maximum due to his (latest) suspension. Add in standard injury risk and it might be closer to ten or eleven games. Irving has never showed he can be a high-volume player and there is no reason to suggest he might become one.
DeMarcus Lawrence exploded last season for 14.5 sacks. His 79 pressures were third in the league so he managed such gaudy stats through volume rather than freak finishing stats (as we’ve seen before). He’s also just 25 years and is still playing for the security of a long-term contract. Rod Marinelli is still in control of the defense and the line is his area of strength. There’s nothing to suggest he won’t have another good year.
Marinelli is a rotational coach at heart. The 704 snaps Lawrence played in 2017 are at the upper limit of what we see from Marinelli ends. With Taco Charlton hopefully developed, Kony Ealy brought in and Dorance Armstrong drafted, Lawrence will likely play less than last season. Added to that, beating ten sacks in a season is a rare event. A lot has to go right for it to happen. Roughly ten players a season (from any position) managed double digits. It’s just a little difficult to believe that Lawrence can have another season like that again. The chances of regression are just too high to predict it sensibly. A top-20 DE season is nothing to be sniffed at and we know Lawrence has a high ceiling.
After him, there should be better depth at the position. Charlton was pretty bad as a rookie but that isn’t unusual. He could still end up being a good player. Armstrong is tougher. He’s a good stash candidate but should not be counted on to start this season.
One of the bigger shocks in this year’s draft was the Cowboys selecting Leighton Vander Esch in the first round. Not because it was a bad place for him – it’s just a muddled depth chart.
Sean Lee is still one of the better backers in the league when healthy. Unfortunately, he’s going into his age-32 season and has averaged just 762 snaps over the past four seasons. It seems likely Lee will still be a key part of this team but the team are smart to start thinking about life beyond him.
Jaylon Smith was a great talent when he was drafted but played poorly in 2017 in just 578 snaps. We all hope he can show that he is fully recovered from his injury woes but on his current resume the hope he can be an elite talent looks remote.
All of which means this is likely set up to be a disappointing year for the position.
The Cowboys are invested in all three players and clearly believe that LB was a need given the high pick. How that will unfold remains to be seen but a situation where all three players are on the field somewhere in the vicinity of 700 snaps seems possible. That would likely mean that none of the trio are elite IDP options but all three of them would be useful at times.
As an addendum then, it’s important not to get caught up in trying to assign players Sam, Mike and Will designations in this era. Teams simply do not religiously line up with three LBs in a row and always in the same order. Some teams have their strong side player an every-down player. Some use just one every-down LB and some are even more exotic. However, if you assign the terms, you’re likely going to be wrong a significant amount of the time.
Another point of contention. The team have very publicly talked about moving Byron Jones “back to corner”. It’s worth noting that in 2017 Jones played just 34 of his 910 snaps at outside corner. Meanwhile, he lined up in the slot on 182 snaps. So when they talk about him being a corner do they mean a boundary player? Or just giving him more responsibility for tight ends or receivers in the slot?
With Jourdan Lewis impressing as a rookie on the outside – as well as Chidobe Awuzie having a nice run there from week 13 onwards (not to mention Anthony Brown and Nolan Carroll) – it seems unlikely that Jones plays on the outside. He’s included here because he’s been classified on MFL as a corner but in reality he should be treated as a hybrid.
This might suggest a “cheat code” opportunity to some given he’ll be a CB-eligible safety (assuming designations do not change) but whatever happens he’s unlikely to spend a lot of time in areas where he can be efficient as an IDP. He’s a sell opportunity based on name value.
Jeff Heath is singularly unexciting as a player. There’s not much he does particularly well and his history is one of fill-in mediocrity. Even in 2017 when he was finally given a starter’s volume, he responded with just 55 solos and eight assists from 881 snaps. Heath is a good example of the fact that most NFL starting safeties are not fantasy-relevant.
Behind him, Xavier Woods is talented and it’ll be good to see him on the field but his role is likely to be somewhat limited given Byron Jones’ presence.
Errrr… DeMarcus Lawrence? He’s certainly got the chance to be a stud again but as noted above it’s a long way from certain.
Maliek Collins. There is just unreasonable confidence in Collins. Even factoring in his latest suspension. Given the lack of value in defensive tackles in most leagues, it’s simply not a winning proposition to be holding him.
Sean Lee. He’s certainly not a hold for long-term dynasty players. But it seems likely he’ll still be the best Cowboys linebacker in 2018 and his intelligence and experience should at least help him in staying effective and productive for one last season.
As per the intro, this will no doubt leave the hordes of Cowboys fans frothing at the mouth. But it’s just quite hard to see any individual stars at this stage.
That doesn’t mean things won’t improve and if the team are as bad as it seems, they could be then volume of defensive snaps could certainly stack up. But in my experience, there’s normally an optimistic Dallas fan in most leagues. If you can extract value from them for big-name IDPs, it’s not a bad strategy.
Thanks for reading.
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